Decision on FCA Diesel Fix Could Take a While: Feds

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2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee

CARS.COM — A Justice Department lawyer told a court hearing that it could be "weeks or months" before there is a decision to approve or reject Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' proposed software fix for excess emissions by its light diesel engines.

Related: Justice Department Sues FCA Over Diesel Emissions

Lawyer Leigh Rende told the federal court in San Francisco that "there is uncertainty" about approval, according to Reuters.

"This is really a technical decision," Rende said.

FCA lawyer Robert Giuffra, who also represented Volkswagen in its diesel suits, said the automaker is optimistic that federal and California emissions regulators will approve the proposed fix, which awaits regulatory approval. The new calibration, created in collaboration with regulators, was submitted with FCA's application for certification for sale of its 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Ram 1500 pickup truck diesels, and it could also be used to fix earlier diesel models.

Federal Lawsuit 

The Justice Department sued FCA in May, alleging that the automaker used illegal software on these vehicles' 3.0-liter diesels that allowed on-road emissions much higher than in EPA testing. The suit followed accusations in January by the Obama-era EPA of undisclosed emissions software on 104,000 vehicles. The automaker has defended itself vigorously, claiming no wrongdoing in its diesel emissions and specifically that its diesels have no illegal "defeat device" software that lowers emissions only during laboratory compliance testing.

The federal lawsuit recently was moved from Detroit to the California court, which also is hearing consumer and dealer lawsuits against FCA over the diesels. Volkswagen Group is spending more than $20 billion to settle U.S. government and consumer suits along with criminal charges in its diesel scandal that affected nearly 600,000 of its diesel cars from the 2009-16 model years.

New FCA Diesel Report

The latest FCA news follows a report in recent weeks by researchers at West Virginia University that found excess emissions in diesel vehicles from the automaker. The school's Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions is the same research group whose 2014 tests uncovered diesel emissions violations by VW vehicles.

In a 64-page report, the group says it conducted tests on five model-year 2014 and 2015 Grand Cherokees and Ram 1500 pickups, all with the diesel V-6. They tested the vehicles in the lab on dynamometers (essentially vehicle treadmills) as well as on the road in highway and stop-and-go driving for emissions of nitrogen oxide, the smog-forming pollutant at the heart of the VW scandal.

The report says that the Grand Cherokees produced an average of up to eight times more nitrogen-oxide emissions on the road than the EPA standard allows, while the Ram pickups had nitrogen-oxide emissions in highway driving up to 25 times more. The report does not allege, however, that these diesels have an intentional and illegal "defeat device," as was the case in the VW scandal.

The report notes this could be the result of emissions-control devices in the vehicles that were, in fact, legal. Higher nitrogen-oxide emissions in real-world testing "in and of itself does not alarm anyone because [we are] not knowing of [auxiliary emissions control devices] or anything else," Carder said.

Fiat Chrysler Says Report Flawed

The report says these results came even as researchers tested one of the Grand Cherokees and one of the Ram 1500s before and after an update issued by FCA to recalibrate the emissions controls. An FCA official told Cars.com, however, that the company believes testers were running old calibration updates on both vehicles, not the updated one currently pending approval.

In a separate emailed statement, the automaker said it is aware of the WVU report and has asked the university to share methodology and data, but the university has yet to oblige. Carder confirmed casual contact with the automaker but no formal conversation — despite efforts to have one — because of legal concerns from the university.

The report "implies it would be appropriate to compare its on-road test results with those of one of five required EPA test procedures — each of which is conducted off-road, under laboratory conditions," FCA said. But those results include speeds, payloads and inclines that "may increase emissions readings, therefore rendering invalid a comparison of on-road and off-road test results," it noted, adding that "the aggregation of these variations makes any comparison misleading. Despite the report, there is no regulatory protocol for conducting on-road emissions testing."

Told of the automaker's contentions, Carder said he has no disagreement, as he intended the results simply to show nitrogen-oxide levels in real-world, on-road tests. Determining why those levels are high is up to regulators.

"What's the bad number? I don't know, because my job isn't to say what's good or what's bad [or] do you have a defeat device, do you not have a defeat device," he said.

"That's why researchers "never say, 'Hey, this looks like an AECD or this looks like a defeat device,' " Carder added. "Those things are applied for and they're either accepted or rejected by the regulators."

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